A ballroom full of people arranged in concentric circles . . . "Okay now," shouts leader, "circles walk in opposite directions . . . as you pass people I want you to touch them. Anywhere. Just touch . . ." Circles move, outer ones faster . . . Lot of shoulder-touching, hair, hands . . . Guy slyly strokes hip of passing girl. She doesn't look back but scowls . . . "Okay now, I want you to make contact with your shoulders. Bump, nudge, no hands . . ." people begin bumping, some covering with smiles, some frowning . . . Activity fierce in crowded center close to blows . . . Others drift to fringes where contact is desultory . . . "Remember, you're in control at all times. Don't do what you don't want. Nobody's forcing you . . ."

In the same charming faith with which they believe that you get what you pay for, Americans also believe that there is something wrong with them.

And that they could fix it if only they had the right formula.

For the right formual, Americans always have been willing to spend actual money. For generations they have sunk their savings into culturally approved, traditional formula such as a college education, orthodontistry, dancing school and season tickets to the Philharmonic.

But something happened in the '60s: Ph.D.s found themselves on welfare, the children moved out from under parental thumbs, and people discovered they could be celebrities by next Tuesday with no qualifications at all, just nerve.

The tired-out accountant next door suddenly chucked it all, bought a boat with his savings and took his family around the world. Or started making pottery. Or opened a candy store. Everybody knew someone like that.

The great insight of the '60s was that whatever was wrong with Americans, it wasn't their Jewishness, or where they didn't go to college, or what their parents didn't teach them about sex. No, the problem lay within themselves, in their heads, in their bodies, in their individual psyches.

The Me Decade as Tom Wolfe nicely put it - had begun. It's still going on, and it takes many forms.

There are books. "I'm O.K., You're O.K." sold 6 million copies. Close behind are "Winning Through Intimidation," "Looking Out for Number One," "Power!" "Stop Running Scared!" "Inner Skiing," "Your Erroneous Zones," "How To Be Your Own Best Friend" - the list goes on for miles. Reviewers get them in armfuls; they are published in batches, like the paperback trio by Dr. George R. Bach and associates, "Pairing (How To Achieve Genuine Intimacy)," "Creative Agression (The Art of Assertive Living)," "The Intimate Enemy (How To Fight Fair in Love and Marriage)."

You wonder what happened to Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie? They're booming: A copy of "Positive Thinking" or "How To Win Friends" today is available for every 20 souls in the United States.

One ballpark guess rates self-help books easily a billion-dollar-a-year business.

There are institutes, movements and foundations - Esalen, Arica, Scientology, Synanon, Wellness Resource Center, Institute for the Development of the Harmonious Human Being, Touch for Health, Massage Institute, Gestalt Institute, Transcendental Meditation, Transactional Analysis, Bioenergetics, Biofeedback, est, Re-evaluation Counseling, Feldenkrais, Iridology, Sufis, Sikhs and new groups springing up every few hours to massage the imperfections of Americans in almost unimaginable variety. Some old ones have been retreaded: The Dale Carnegie Institute now is into group therapy via mutual confession. And this week we have a dentist-hypnotist in Philadelphia who is promoting daydreams as therapy. Some of these people appear on TV talk shows; many work through magazine and newspaper ads and posters on college campuses.

There are courses. Offered by invisible universities in every American city and village (and especially around San Francisco), they include: global acupuncture (sticking pins in mountains), angelic invocation ("learn to channel light for the realignment of earth"), the Tarot, the Philosopher's Stone, Theosophy, psychic judo, the teachings of Don Juan, I Ching, the Art of Dying, astral existence, tennis played to music, life-style evolution, holistic medicine, Fundamentals of Prosperity, Actualization, polarity yoga, Autogenics, Shiatsu, gestalt dreaming.

He: "Whenever I got a problem I throw the I Ching. I use three pennies and draw the hexagram and look up what it says in the book,"

She: "But what if you ask it the same question twice and it gives you a different answer the second time?"

He: "Well, time has passed. Even a few seconds, the whole world is changed. A new position in space. You're a whole different person."

She: "Oh."

Prices can range from $18 for two weekly courses at the Bay Area Center for Alternative Education to the 12-day training program at the Wellness Resource Center for $1,200. In Leo Sunshine's Prosperity Training course, where you chew dollar bills, you pay $250 per snack. This brings Sunshine about $35,000 a month, which possibly accounts for his name.

Weekend seminars run from about $40 ("Learn the basics of acupressure and energy-balancing massage, including fundamentals of the Polarity System. Emphasis on simple effective techniques for opening the most commonly blocked body/mind areas . . . and nurturing the recipient. Also, self-healing information and practices, including polarity yoga exercises and solar-heated swimming pool, fireplaces adn campfire, plus dancing and playing under a sky full of stars . . .") to $300 for a three-day workshop by a former est leader.

Teacher qualifications go from degrees in psychology and physical therapy to the ability to write a course description in 25 words or less.

G. Patrick Flanagan, lecturer on pyromid power and fulltime searcher for the Philosopher's Stone "because behind every myth there is an element of truth" tells press conference he has had 15 gold needles embedded in his body at cost of $1,000 with the understanding that this would make him immortal . . .

Like any fad, the pop wisdom craze has swept over some long-established and useful therapies, making it more dificult than ever to separate the serious from the silly. Some institutions themselves have changed: The prosaic TM movement is now into levitation. One counterforce now battling what it calls "virulent programs of dangerous sects" is the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, sponsored by the American Humanist Association.

Its concern is the seeming rise in guillibility, uncritical belief in what often amounts to parlor magic, the apparent unlearning of the physics, chemistry, astronomy and psychology accumulated over the last thousand years to chase wide-eyed after such hoary medieval delusions as the Philosopher's Stone, the transmutation of lead into gold and so on.

One humanist, professional magician James Randi of Rumson, N. J., makes a career out of duplicating the feats of Uri Geller: bending spoons and stopping clocks. Co-chairman Paul Kurtz, a philosophy professor, say the committee has complained to NBC and the Reader's Digest for their gee-whiz "documentary" treatment of UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, Noah's Ark and other well-promoted money-makers.

Possibly the eagerness-to-believe that makes wishful thinking a red-hot business these days is a by-product of the Me Decade. Possibly it has to do with the craving for clear, simple answers in a confusing world - even if we have to import our answer-givers in UFOs. (You'd think we have enough gurus of our own already, in Werner Erhard, Baba Ram Dass, Oral Roberts, Maharaj Ji, William Schutz and Co.)

In any case, clear, simple answers are what you get from pop wisdom.

Four people lie on their left sides in a Feldenkrais class . . . swing right arms above heads, feeling for "that certain point where the hand wants to ho over and the arm wants to rotate. See if you can find that point and go with it . . . Later, all stand up, are asked if they notice different feeling in their left sides (which they've been lying on), are told, "the side that feels best is your true self." All notice difference. . . .

How to recognize a self-help book:

The title ends with an exclamation point, as in "Stop Running Scared!" And there is a subtitle: "Fear Control Training: the New Way to Conquer Fears, Phobias and Anxieties."

It is addressed to "You" throughout, as in "You can fight your fear and win," and it is full of anecdotes: "At 16 Louise, a brilliant student with a 150 IQ, developed a school phobia. She had such a fear of tests and being asked questions in class that one day she left school in the middle of an algebra exam and never came back . . ."

All the quoted examples are worse off than you.

A special set of labels is introduced: Thought Stoppage, Success Rehearsal, Systematic Desensitization, Model Hierarchies.

The author sounds authoritative but kindly and completely sure of himself at all times. He has way of ending each chapter with a little nudge in words of one syllable: "It has happened to others. It can happen to you." Or, if she can do it, you can too." Or, "It can be done. It has been done. You can do it."

It is likely to be a collaboration of a scientist and a journalist. "Stop Running Scared!" was written by Dr. Herbert Fensterheim, a Ph. D. with impressive credentials, and his wife, ex-magazine editor Jean Baer, with whom he has also written, "Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No."

You won't have any trouble finding it.The Fensterheim book is the choice of two book clubs; three of the top 15 nonfiction bestsellers last week were self-help books. And next time you're on the bus or subway, just look around and you'll see at least three or four readers with their dogeared "Passages" or "Having It Your Way" or whatever.

Who are these people? What do they want and what are they getting for their money?

"A lot of them are women," said one therapist. "They're nearly all white and middle-class. They come for the social contact as much as anything. But there are personal satisfactions too. One man told me I changed his life."

At the classes of Robert Coleman, a Washington Yoga teacher, pupils linger when they are done, enjoying the glow of their relaxed, thoroughly used bodies. Often they discuss their health or diet. Coleman, who is associated with the 3HO, a Sikh group here, typifies one major source of pop wisdom: ancient religions. Another is the counterculture, which lately has seemed intertwined with the religious movement.

Generally, the purpose for these enthusiasts is spiritual development, a greater ability to love, or a reverent desire for a healthier body. Here, of course, pop wisdom connects with the vast natural-foods audience.

A quite separate audience, not necessarily older but more ambitious for conventional success and probably more conservative politically, is interested in becoming more aggressive. These are the people who seek "Power!" and hope to dominate their peers.

If all these elements have something in common, it is probably fear: the fear that makes people timid, or unable to love, or hesitant to give up their Librium for rosehips. It is fear of being attacked that causes aggression, fear of being rejected that causes coldness, fear of being deprived - of food, money, sex or whatever - that causes gluttony, greed, lust and other unattractive behavior.

And it is fear of exposing our naked, homely, true thoughts and our perhaps inadequate powers of expression that causes us to communicate rather than say what we mean. We have given the entire pop wisdom world a language of its own, what Richard Rosen calls Psychobabble. Sample dialogue:

"Hey, I'm in a space where I'd really like you to relate to me more. Do you hear what I'm saying?"

"I'm just not in a space to handle that right now, like I'm just really not into that trip. But I can see the space you're coming from," etc.

It does seem that pop wisdom works, one way or another. "I'm much happier since I took up TM," one junior executive said. "I can concentrate better, I don't want to drink as much just a beer now and then. I feel more alert. More aware."

It also seems, one way or another, that one theme runs through all the myriad forms of pop wisdom: awareness, inner examination. "Know thyself." It is as sound a principle as you can find.

Add to that, perhaps, a touch of Emil Coue (a pop wisdom pioneer who in the '20s had millions repeating his nostrum: "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better"), and you have summed it all up.

Japanese instructor explains Tai Chi to 20 cager Americans . . . "Just watch first movement, don't try. Please." Arms billow out in graceful gathering gesture . . . "You must learn to feel it . . . my teacher spent four years learning this one movement . . . spent lifetime learning Tai Chi . . . just watch, please . . . Instantly, a dozen pupils start imitating him. He smiles in despair . . .